Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released 274 pages of emails from 2014 and 2015 about the lead water crisis in Flint, hoping, as he articulated in Tuesday’s State of the State address, to offer some transparency around how the long-term emergency came to pass.
Thousands of Flint residents have been exposed to toxic levels of lead, including an estimated 9,000 children, since the cash-strapped city changed its water supply to the Flint River in 2014, and the untreated water stripped lead from pipes.
While Mr. Snyder's stated intention was to show the administration’s transparency on the crisis, the documents indicate instead that state officials were largely unconcerned with residents' outcry, and focused attention on casting blame on local government. After a Flint resident sent tap water samples to be tested at Virginia Tech, which confirmed the water's toxicity, Snyder's office was still slow to respond to the unfolding emergency.
Dennis Muchmore, Snyder's former chief of staff (he retired on Tuesday), writes in an e-mail to the governor dated Sept. 25, 2015 that Flint residents were turning the issue of children's exposure to lead into "a political football," and that "the real responsibility rests with the county, city and KWA," an area water authority.
The state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was first aware of lead levels in children's blood on Aug. 23, 2015, when Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards notified the department that the school would be studying Flint water quality issues "over the next few months," the emails indicate.
The tests that confirmed the levels of lead in the city’s water were the result of a concerned resident who independently sent samples to a professor at Virginia Tech, said Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has worked in Flint since the crisis began, in a previous interview with The Christian Science Monitor. More than 250 others later volunteered water from their homes as samples for further experimentation, Ms. Chaudhary said.
“It’s very difficult to collect that many samples. But this community was so organized and so confident about their understanding of the danger that this water posed that they were able to go out and do that,” Chaudhary said.
DEQ disputed Virginia Tech's test results that indicated corrosion and lead leaching in early September, a timeline of the events created by the governor’s office states.
By October 2015, the governor announced plans for Flint to reconnect to Detroit's water, and end the city's reliance on the Flint River. At this time, the city of Flint determined that it needed to treat the water to control for corrosives, the emails read, a process that would go into December.
Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling – who lost in a re-election bid last November – said the e-mails were not enough, in an interview with CBS News.
"There's too little here to tell," Mr. Walling said. "This is missing a whole year and it's missing all the key public officials at the state level who are involved."
Lead levels in Flint water have decreased, but during an interview Wednesday with CBS News, Snyder couldn't say what the current lead levels are.
"I don't have the number at the top of my head of the very latest data. And it varies by parts of the city," Snyder said. "Until they're in a range that is considered safe, I don't actually want to get into the issue ... "
The properly treated water from Detroit that is now coming through Flint's pipes is rebuilding the coating that protects tap water from lead, but some say that process could take four to six months.
With the challenge far from over, community efforts within Flint and beyond will be invaluable as the city continues to find ways to overcome its ordeal, the NRDC's Chaudhary said to the Monitor.
“The water’s still not safe to drink, and no one knows when [residents] will be able to drink their water and how the city intends to provide safe water for its residents,” she said. But “the community in Flint has created an infrastructure to help each other as this crisis evolves and persists.”
On Wednesday, the Michigan House approved a request by the governor for $28 million to assist the city.